by J.T. Ellison
Navigating writer’s organizations can be frustrating and expensive. At press time, I belong to an alphabet soup of parent organizations — International Thriller Writers (ITW), Mystery Writers of America (MWA), Sisters in Crime (SinC), Romance Writers of America (RWA), International Association of Crime Writers (IACW), The Authors Guild and Women’s National Book Association (WNBA). I have an application in for one more, a group I’m very excited about.
But that’s not all. Then we have the paid subgroups – Sisters in Crime Middle Tennessee Chapter, Music City Romance Writers (MCRW), RWA-PASIC, and the non-charging RWA-PAN. Whew. That’s a chunk of change every year. I thought it would be helpful to break down the expenses and have a frank discussion about just what writer’s organizations do, how they can help your career, and whether they’re worth the money.
First, the cost. It’s a tough nut to swallow, these fees. But organizations have to run, and you get your money’s worth.
ITW — was $95 annually, now it’s free if you meet the publishing criteria, a bold and brilliant move that will definitely make a difference when it comes down to weighing your options.
MWA – $95
RWA – $100 first year, $75 after that
- PASIC – $35
- Music City Romance Writers – $25
Sisters in Crime – $40
- Sisters in Crime Middle Tennessee Chapter – $10
IACW – $60
WNBA – $25
Authors Guild – $90 first year (sliding scale after that, but most continue to pay $90)
Unnamed Organization – $110
So for the 2008 fiscal year, I spent nearly $700 for the privilege of belonging to these writer’s organizations. Gulp.
Some of that money I feel is very well spent, some of it I don’t feel like I’m getting my money’s worth and will let lapse after this year. That’s becoming increasingly true for the subgroups, only because I can’t seem to find the time to hit local meetings (in the case of one group, I literally have not been in town the third Saturday of the month, their regular meeting date, since I joined the group six months ago. Now that’s sad.)
Lots of cash spent, and for what? Outside of the financial burden, what do writer’s organizations do? Why in the world would anyone spend $700 a year to be involved?
There’s an easy answer to the latter. Camaraderie. Most groups have free list serves where you can get to know your fellow authors, ask advice, find sources for research, make invaluable networking connections, and in general learn the industry. Some encourage volunteerism (ITW in particular) and that’s a brilliant way to meet your compatriots, especially the higher echelons. (Last year at Thrillerfest I escorted Vince Flynn. Now that’s was cool.) Most of these organizations are purely volunteer driven (MWA & RWA aside, they do have paid staff, though MWA’s is minimal) and rely on their membership to run things. If you’re the kind of person who likes to get their hands dirty, who likes to lead, to set programming, to mix and mingle with the big dogs, volunteering with an organization can be an incredibly fulfilling experience.
It’s also a massive time suck. Massive.You see how many groups I belong to. It’s too much. You can’t be an effective active participant if you’re spread too thin. And much more importantly, I found I couldn’t keep the level of my writing in tip top shape if I spent my time organizing and volunteering, and as such have stepped back. I’ll be honest, that kind of stuff isn’t my cuppa anyway. I’ve never wanted to be the head of an organization, hold leadership positions. I want to be a writer, first and foremost. It’s taken me quite a while to stop being an apologist about that.
Even if you don’t volunteer, there are still many ways to help your chosen group. Spread the word about your favorite organization, encourage new writers to join up, link to them on your website, plug the organizations at signings and events. Attending the conferences and events they put on is vital too — MWA has the Edgars, ITW has Thrillerfest, RWA has RWA National and Romantic Times… you get the idea. Even if you’re not the type to run for an office, there are plenty of ways to be involved. Even something as simple as offering to moderate a panel, judging a contest or hosting a breakfast with the booksellers can make a huge difference to the organizers.
To answer the former question though, that’s where I’m a bit murky. What do writer’s organizations do?
Some, like Sisters in Crime, have a clear mandate — to help level the playing field between female and male writers. Author’s Guild is the gold standard, fighting to keep contracts fair, giving legal advice, and being an all around resource, plus offering health insurance, (which I wish could be expanded, but hey, it’s a start!) There would be nothing more valuable in my mind than an organization finding a way to provide real and affordable health insurance to their members. There are a lot of writers who keep day jobs for health insurance. Think of the productivity levels if health insurance was offered across the board.
ITW and MWA are more geared to promotion of their members, (ITW in particular is reaching thousands of people, readers and writers alike through their website and newsletter,) and RWA has been a strong voice in the romance world for decades.These organizations seek to educate their members, and that’s the invaluable part of all of this, especially for new writers.They also give awards – RWA has a slew of them, but the Rita is their biggie, MWA has the Edgars (I had the honor of serving as a judge last year, and though it took an incredible amount of time, it was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done to date.) ITW has the Thriller Awards.
All of the above organizations have a newsletter, though ITWs is always online. It’s a great way to get updated on your peers, their goings-on, and news from the head office. And many, many subgroups have individual conferences. (What conferences to attend is a whole different post, as is the discussion of earned media, ie: free media exposure — the social networking sites and free list serves.)
Here’s the beautiful thing. If you’re not yet published, you can still join these organizations – ITW, MWA and RWA have associate memberships for as yet unpublished members, Sisters in Crime doesn’t have a published requirement for membership at all. I joined MWA long before I had a book deal, and will always remember Margery Flax, the budda guru executive manager of MWA, sharing in my joy when I called to upgrade from associate to active.
I was a part of Sisters in Crime well before I had an agent — and I belonged to four facets of that organization — the Guppies (the soon to be published group that was an invaluable resource for me) the Internet Chapter, the Middle Tennessee Chapter and National. Sisters in Crime got me where I am today, no doubt. I learned more about the industry on those list serves and through the meetings in town than anything else I’ve done, and I’ve made friendships that will last a lifetime.
Now that’s what a writer’s organization should be, in my mind. A place to be educated, to make friendships, to be surrounded by like-minded people who celebrate your successes and pick you up after your defeats. It’s a delicate balance, and one that not every organization is capable of fostering. And the support should be dynamic, altering along with the times, helping you grow as a writer.
So who do you join if you only have room in your budget for one organization? I say pay attention to your genre. If you write thrillers, join ITW. If you’re more traditional mystery, look to MWA. Sisters in Crime isn’t just for cozies, (nor just for women, obviously) but there are a lot of writers who write them there. Romance your forte? RWA is your home, and possibly the most well-established of them all. Need all-around advice on writing and the industry? Join the Author’s Guild.
And remember, there’s always next year if you want to try something different, or branch out into additional groups.
There are so many options, you should be able to find a niche. Writing in a vacuum is possible, but it’s much more fun to connect at the virtual water cooler, then cement those friendships in person.
I know there are many more organizations I’ve missed — Horror Writers of America in particular, simply because I’ve had no experience with them to date. I’d love to hear from other writers on this one.
What organization gives you the best bang for your buck? Which gives the most camaraderie, the best feeling of inclusiveness? What should a writer’s organization give to their membership? When do you walk away from an organization that isn’t giving you what you’re looking for?
And readers, do you belong to any of the writer’s organizations? Do you have a specific reader centric organization that you participate in?
Wine of the Week: A fine bottle of Four Sisters Shiraz, from Southeastern Australia, shared with hubby for his birthday, served by the lovely James at one of Nashville’s best kept secrets — Jimmy Kelly’s Steakhouse.